Elementary (Summer 2009 Trusts Magazine article)

Source Organization: The Pew Charitable Trusts

Author: Tom Ferrick Jr.


08/13/2009 - Its title is The Elements of Journalism: What Newspeople Should Know and the Public Should Expect, but it certainly is not a textbook. There is no talk of inverted pyramids or how to write a feature story.

The Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel book is something more significant. It is a manifesto—a call for journalists to reclaim the soul of their profession, an affirmation of the role and value of an independent, nonpartisan press, a warning against the forces that would dilute and diminish the true mission of reporters.

It is informed by the belief that journalism and freedom are inextricably linked. You cannot have one without another.

“Journalism provides something unique to a culture: independent, reliable, accurate and comprehensive information that citizens require to be free,” the authors write in the introduction to the latest edition of the book, which appeared, updated, in 2007.

Elements has earned high admiration in the field. In the Wall Street Journal, former TV anchor Roger Mudd listed it as one of the top five books on “the press at work.” Former journalist and presidential speechwriter William Safire, who is also an enthusiast of language usage, made it one of his recommended “bibliogifts,” adding, “Don’t even think of becoming a reporter, editor, columnist or influential blogger without reading this modern classic.”

Since it was first published in 2001, Elements has become a standard text in American journalism schools, been translated into 23 languages and been published in a dozen more countries. And it has won the Sigma Delta Chi Award from the Society of Professional Journalists, the 2002 Goldsmith Book Prize from Harvard University and the Bart Richards Award for Media Criticism from Pennsylvania State University.

It turns out that American-style journalism may be one of this country’s most valuable exports. The book has been embraced, says Kovach, because “the aspiring journalists of the world are on fire with the idea of a free press.”

They have lived under governmentcontrolled media and a partisan press and know the obvious weaknesses of both. American-style journalism— independent of party or government, driven by fact—is the model they want, the kind stated in the precepts that frame the book:

  • Journalism’s first obligation is to the truth.
  • Its first loyalty is to the citizens.
  • Its essence is the discipline of verification.
  • Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
  • It must serve as an independent monitor of power.
  • It must provide a forum for public criticism and compromise.
  • It must strive to make the significant interesting and relevant.
  • It must keep the news comprehensive and proportional.
  • Its practitioners must be allowed to exercise their personal conscience.
In the Introduction, the authors anticipate their critics: “Why these nine? Some readers will think items are missing here. Where is fairness? Where is balance? After synthesizing what we learned, it became clear that a number of familiar and even useful ideas—including fairness and balance—are too vague to rise to the level of essential elements of the profession.

“Others may say this list is nothing new. To the contrary, we discovered that many ideas about the elements of journalism are wrapped in myth and misconception. The notion that journalists should be protected by a wall between business and news is one myth. That independence requires journalists be neutral is another. The concept of objectivity has been so mangled it now is usually used to describe the very problem it was conceived to correct.”

Kovach tells me that newspapers used to regularly publish statements of principle (witness The New York Times owner Adolph Ochs’s promise to report without fear or favor).

By the 1950s, when Kovach began his career, the practice had fallen out of favor, partly out of fear that the statements could be used against the paper in a libel suit.

“The profession of journalism shied away from ever defining journalism,” he says, “and defining it is basically what we wound up doing in the book.” In the 2007 edition, a 10th principle was added:

  • Citizens, too, have rights and responsibilities when it comes to the news.
In The Elements of Journalism, you can read all about it.

Tom Ferrick Jr. has won a range of journalism honors, including a Polk Award for investigative reporting, a World Hunger Award for his reporting on the homeless and a Pulitzer Prize as a member of a team of Philadelphia Inquirer reporters for coverage of the nuclear accident at Three Mile Island.

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